How to effectively eulogise one of the most recognisable public figures of the late twentieth-century? Casting a Princess Diana was arguably one of the biggest obstacles series creator Peter Morgan faced in the latest instalment of The Crown. Eagerly anticipated was Emma Corrin’s imitation of the ‘people’s princess’: a cultural icon whose prominence in popular culture has seemed only to rise exponentially since her untimely death 23 years ago.
Yet, to adeptly dramatise a provocative dignitary such as Diana, is another story altogether; a story in which I think The Crown executes with sheer melodramatic perfection. This is somewhat due to an audible departure from the sluggish, more subdued pacing of Series Three, as the show leans into the palpable turbulence of Eighties Britain; etching closer and closer towards the 21st Century. This interruption is implemented through musical signifiers, technological advances and an amplification of female agency.
For those reasons, this series struck a particular chord within me, further kindling a deep and uncontrollable fascination with the royal family I’ve held since childhood; most notably, the Diana era and her near-constant embroilment in a fact versus fiction narrative. Like many children of the nineties, a lot of my growing-up was in part surrounded by the princess’s phantasmic presence. To my mother’s absolute dismay, I was actually due to be born on 31st August 1997 and although I was two weeks late, to this day I’m yet to hear the end of it.
Therefore, I feel well enough acquainted with the late Princess (I’ve seen every Diana documentary there is on Netflix, thank you) to recognise that The Crown does a good job in handling such flagrant subject matters. This is most certainly a result of Corrin’s exceptional performance as Diana, but equally by a degree to more clandestine symbols of her legacy and positioning within the expansive history of the royals.
The Crown’s exploration of Diana is both discernibly rendered and subtly integrated throughout Series Four. Where Corrin altogether embodies the Princess of Wales to an almost eerie extent, Diana’s character is most obviously evoked through costume and relevant aesthetic choices. We watch a facsimile of her metamorphosis into Princess of Wales throughout the ten episodes, as The Crown revives some of her most illustrious looks from 1979 to 1990; paying ample pop-culture homage to her campy and outlandish fashion. My favourite, of course, being the infamous sheep jumper, which rather unsurprisingly has spawned a new life of its own.
From the childish Shakespearean performer disguised in leafy costume in Episode 1, “Gold Stick”, to the elegant, poised and significantly more petrified wife in the series finale (appropriately titled “War”); Diana’s character development is mapped through an ever-dynamic wardrobe and accompanied by suitable stylistic elements. Yet, there’s one standout scene where costume and accessory fulfil a far more idiosyncratic purpose than that of pure aestheticism.
In Episode Three, “Fairytale”, Corrin’s Diana attempts to conform to the Palace’s perpetual rules; enduring tedious lessons in social etiquette while migrating farther and farther from her old life as a kindergarten assistant. Incontestably, a lethal cocktail of boredom and loneliness soon strikes and, armed with a collection of 80’s cultural cues: namely a pair of roller skates and a Sony Walkman, Diana trails Buckingham Palace while listening to Duran Duran’s “Girls On Film”. Here, The Crown expertly encapsulates the burgeoning division between a vibrant soon-to-be Princess and the less neoteric, strictly conventional, royal family.
Despite lasting only 30 seconds or so, this scene truly epitomises the role in which music and mobility have to play throughout this chapter of The Crown. A means of creating an isolated bubble away from society, the Walkman shifted social trends and restored the ways in which people consumed music. First popularised by Sony in Japan 1979, the Walkman was a socially and culturally significant symbol of the 1980s. An indicator of individualisation and mobile privatisation; consumers recognised their portable stereo system as an inherently personal, private practice.
The Walkman was advertised as the apotheosis of modernity. As media researchers argue in Doing Cultural Studies: The Story of the Sony Walkman, the Walkman was targeted towards a flourishing youth culture. It was a product addressed to consumers who prioritised flexibility by allowing listeners to play music of their own choice while on the move. Sony’s Walkman thus elevated mobility, granted more agency and advanced the popular desire to live life on the go.
Thus, it’s entirely reasonable to suggest a young Diana was in possession of a Walkman during her term of residence at Buckingham Palace. What’s more, in “Fairytale”, the role of Diana’s Walkman can be seen to further exaggerate the existing dichotomy between old and new, as she installs a sense of personality and privacy within the royal family’s domain.
During the first three seasons, The Crown does it’s best to sympathise with the royals, painting a complex but kinder picture. In Series Four, however, this shifts exponentially with the introduction of Diana. The Princess of Wales’ presence as a modern, mobile woman contrasts and contradicts the majority of royal values. Most significantly, in The Crown, the Princess challenges the Queen (Olivia Colman) as evidenced in the monarch’s refusal to accept Diana’s phone calls and desperate pleas for help. Coleman’s Queen can’t even bear to congratulate her daughter in law on her multitude of public success, going so far as to .
We watch as Diana only exasperates the monarchy further, with her uninhibited and ungoverned actions and movements. Most passionately depicted in “Fairytale”’s ballet scene, where Corrin’s Diana dances to Elton John’s “Song For Guy” against a regal, royal ballroom setting. The music fades into an intense instrumental as Diana lets loose. Overcome with stifled frustration, she sheds the mask of restrained royal appearances, using music and movement as her means of expression. This stark juxtaposition serves to punctuate Diana’s personal bubble within Buckingham Palace, and more broadly, indicates her role within the royal family. She is isolated and ostracised, reproached and reprimanded by everyone from her husband to his sister Anne (Erin Doherty) to Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter).
I suggest this is – for the most part – due to this unrestrained mobility. As in “Fairytale”, Corrin’s Diana moves constantly throughout her scenes. She is rarely stagnant or seated; she drives her own car, she creates her own schedule (and the schedule of her sons) and quite literally dances to the beat of her own drum. The series’ soundtrack emulates this notion while wonderfully reflecting the time period. In Episode One, Blondie’s “Call Me” plays loudly in the background while Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) calls Lady Diana for the first time. An unbridled Diana dances for Charles at his 37th birthday celebration to Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” in Episode Nine, and later Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” blasts loudly as she drives a young Princes William and Harry to Highgrove House.
The Crown portrays Diana as in tune with the realities of the outside world through strategic placement of music, acting both as an embodiment of her socio-cultural mobility and as a vital accessory to her storyline. The Crown allows it’s viewer to connect with Corrin’s Diana through musical devices and technologies, in the same way Diana connected with the general public at the height of her marriage to Charles (see Episode Six – “Terra Nullius”).
These narrative devices serve only to reinforce her authentic accessibility as a member of the royal family and as Princess of Wales. The Crown’s Diana is not detached from the real world in the same way other members are suggested to be. Rather, she herself is detached from an impenetrable environment that appears determined to both reject and subdue her.
This all makes for an exceptionally sad story, a sadness that can only be heightened on knowing that it was in part true, but still The Crown does well to employ specific moments of jovial life and youthfulness that can better categorise Diana’s place in history. Perhaps best exemplified in “Fairytale”, as a young Diana Spencer laughs and sings along with her friends to Stevie Nicks’ “Edge Of Seventeen” while driving through London in the back of a minicab.
We don’t know for certain if any of these moments did indeed take place in real life or if it’s merely a clever reimagining on the producers behalf. Nonetheless, I’d argue that it isn’t too important either which way. What these scenes do reference is a clear juxtaposition between old and new, between tradition and amelioration. Through use of mobility and technological advancements in music, The Crown provides a dramatisation of the divisive contrasts that plagued Diana, the country and the royal family throughout the late twentieth century.
In this way, music serves as a driving force that elevates this season above its predecessors, creating new layers of meaning and allowing for greater exploration of the monarchy’s rigid social, cultural and economic position within the 1980’s. While Corrin’s Diana is overtly mobile, advancing and ever-inspiring, in spite of it all.
by Georgie Hume
Georgie (she/her) is a northern English Lit graduate, currently recovering from the minor identity crisis she developed in moving to London for her degree. She’s now pursuing an MA in Media & Journalism at Newcastle University, while reporting for a local newsite. Margot Tenenbaum and Moonrise Kingdom’s Suzy are her style icons. Ask her anything about Drive, Gone Girl or Lost In Translation and she’ll provide you with a 10 page essay. When she’s not checking her Co-Star every 5 minutes, you can catch her writing about books and music on Instagram @gmay_h or on Twitter @georgiehume